Book Review : John Le Carré - The Night Manager (1993)
I have a shoddy track record with spy thrillers. Maybe it's the stereotypical virtuous killing machines that effortlessly tear through cardboard antagonists that I don't like. Maybe geopolitics are fucked enough as it is, I fail to see the point in romancing them. I'm not sure. I just have a profound disinterest for them. I was intrigued by The Night Manager knowing it was a spy novel mainly because it was turned into a miniseries by AMC last year, but also because it seemed to drift from the formula. To be more atmospheric. Intimate. And it is. The Night Manager is only transcendent in short moments, but it lives up to iconic British author John Le Carré's reputation of writing the finest, most sophisticated espionage novels in the business. I was not swept off my feet, but I had a great time with the book.
The Night Manager is the story of Jonathan Pine, a British soldier turned night manager for some of the world's most luxurious hotels. He fled to Switzerland after his lover Sophie was murdered by people close to international arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper in Cairo. Fate catches up to Pine when he is forced to welcome Roper in his new hotel soon after. That's when Leonard Burr makes his move and recruits him for a covert operation against the notorious criminal. Jonathan Pine, a lonely and secretive drifter, has found a purpose to his life. His war to wage. He is ridiculously unprepared for the dangerous new life awaiting him and yet he's tailor made for it. The Night Manager is not an exploration of the virtuous men risking their lives to stop illegal arms trafficking. It is a novel about what kind of man does this virtuous job.
The first 50 pages of The Night Manager narrate Roper's arrival to Pine's hotel in Switzerland and it's one of the best things I've ever read. If the entire novel would've happened over the course of a single day at the hotel, which would've been defined by Pine and Roper's memories like the beginning, The Night Manager would've been one of the best novels I've ever read. John Le Carré made us care for an enigmatic drifter with existential issues by introducing him through memories that are meaningful to him. We all do that: we define our present by things which happened in the past. Jonathan Pine is fundamentally lonely and therefore his relationship to Sophie meant the world to him, now that it is forever in the past. Using Pine's memories to explain The Night Manager's background allows John Le Carré to keep Roper mysterious and deliver his key exposition scenes through intense dialogue. If anything, The Night Manager is an achievement in creative storytelling, something few spy thrillers can brag about.
The Night Manager changes once Leonard Burr is introduced. It becomes slightly more predictable. There's a dozen new characters from Whitehall introduced and they're all pretty stereotypical power brokers. None of them can really hold a candle to Jonathan Pine or Richard Onslow Roper in terms of character quality. The Night Manager is narrated in third person alternating viewpoints, but I would've loved if John Le Carré would've never left Pine's warped perception somehow. If the bureaucratic aspect of his case would've only been exposed through interactions with him. Because his chapters are consistently fascinating throughout the novel. His relationship with Roper in particular, is far from adversarial. Roper is a thoughtful and charismatic man. Le Carré foster intimacy, a wordless bond between Pine and him. The unpredictable nature of Jonathan Pine and the seduction of Roper's Nietschean lifestyle are what makes The Night Manager special. The rest is just scrap parts of a sophisticated spy thriller.
That John Le Carré guy is pretty great. Not that I am a great resource in the genre, but The Night Manager is by far the best spy thriller I've ever read. The lead characters aren't that special, really. There are billionaire playboys arm dealers and blank slate secret agents in other spy thrillers, but they're not framed with the incredible depth and insightfulness of John Le Carré's pen. Maybe The Night Manager is a little too bulky and procedural overall and I'm pretty sure this stems from a realism concern, but the novel shines anyway through the inclusion of unconventional themes for spy thrillers: loneliness, desire, regret, pride, selfishness, etc. I would've enjoyed it a lot more if it had been leaner and looser with the bureaucracy, but who am I to critique the stylistic choices of such an iconic writer? The Night Manager was great. Read the book. Watch the series. I'll probably return to John Le Carré at some point. The experience was enjoyable enough for that.